Women firms fight to break glass ceiling

Women-owned businesses have more operational capacity and information gap. [iStockphoto]

“Women are like flowers; they should be treated gently, kindly and with affection.”

We may never know what Imam Ali had in mind when he said those words, but this has become the way women are treated in almost all sectors - giving birth to the not-so-suitable reference of flower girls.

The term ‘flower girl’ which is a reference to women who are perceived not to do much in their respective industries might be an open discourse in politics where jabs count as points and participants have the liberty to go as low as they can, but in business, this is a topic discussed in hushed tones.

Especially those who seek to break the gender jinx.

Despite government policies and investments by big businesses to specifically support women enterprises, it seems the majority (of women-owned businesses) are still going after the low-hanging fruits.

What the numbers say

Data shared by International Finance Corporation (IFC), a partner entity to World Bank Group, shows that globally, one per cent of procurement contracts go to women-owned or women-led businesses.

In Kenya, said IFC Country Manager for Kenya Amena Arif that percentage is three.

“But that still means that 97 out of every 100 procurement contracts go to businesses that are not women-owned or women-led,” she said during an interview with Standard Group’s Spice Fm.

While this three per cent number in Kenya appears friendlier than the one per cent globally, Ms Arif said the reality is that most of these are really low value-added contracts.

“Most of these businesses are sub-contractors and operate at the lower end of the value chain,” she said.

The government has provided through Access to Government Procurement Opportunities (Agpo) to facilitate women to participate in procurement where at least 30 per cent of tenders are awarded to women, youth or persons living with disabilities.

The challenge, as Ms Arif put it, has been to get women to participate in the top-tier contracts.

Safaricom’s Chief Consumer Business Officer Sylvia Mulinge, while speaking in the recent launch of Standard Chartered Bank’s sustainable report noted this challenge as well.

“I sit in our tender board and one of the things that used to stand out is that when you look at the number of businesses receiving significant business from Safaricom – we are an ICT business, we roll out towers, fibre – but we find women playing categories of flowers, catering, and hospitality services,” she noted.

“Yes we spend there, but the amount of spending is not as significant as what we spent on the network and IT side of the business,” she added.

She said this scenario has Safaricom interrogate how many women-owned and women-led businesses are actually participating in the IT and network business with the telco.  

“When we counted, the number was appalling. It was less than I think one or two per cent,” she said. “We said we wanted to grow that number to 10 per cent.”

Even with this resolve, Mulinge said there is still a lot that should be done adding that even if Safaricom gives women-owned businesses Local Purchasing Orders(LPOs), they still have more hurdles to jump including financing.

She said the telco has gone further and made female students in schools to be interested in Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) so as to increase the possibility of women-owned businesses on this front.

“We tell them you can climb a tower, you can fix a base station, you can roll out fibre. Today one of our biggest suppliers in Ethiopia in our rollout of network and fibre is a woman,” she said.

Why women have to think like bankers

It is the same challenge that Standard Chartered chief executive Kariuki Ngari noted.

He said one time he looked at the bank’s entire supplier database and found that 17 per cent are women-owned businesses yet this represented just three per cent of the entire spending.

“When you talk about women-owned business it has to be 51 per cent (owned). We do not want men to come up and say this is a women-owned business my wife has 30 per cent, that does not qualify,” he said.

He said when women-owned businesses approach them, they have to think like bankers. They have to be thorough on who owns the business.

Ngari further said that more interrogation is needed to determine what stops women businesses from participating at the top level with solutions on how to navigate through.

“Like for us we got to ask ourselves, why are we having 52 per cent women in our staff but when it comes to the top it changes? What is making them drop off and you address the issues that you hear: you know like they have to raise a family, and you put interventions,” he said. “It has to be the same for the businesses as well.”

These business challenges are what IFC seeks to address through an ongoing programme dubbed Sourcing2Equal that aims to empower 5,000 women-owned enterprises. In the three years, the programme will be running in the country, IFC seeks to empower 1,300 women-owned businesses and have them participate in procurement.

Safaricom is one of the companies that is participating in this programme. Others are Tropikal Brands (Afrika), Stanbic Bank Kenya Ltd, Bamburi Cement Plc, Unilever Kenya Ltd, Naivas Ltd, Kenya Electricity Generating Company (Kengen), Line Plast Group, Bidco Africa Ltd, and Absa Bank Plc.

Ms Arif emphasised that it is not that women’s businesses lack the desire or the ambition to grow.

“I think sometimes they lack the means, tools and skillset to grow,” she said. “Even companies, when you look at it from the other side, it is not that they go out there and say we do not want to source from women-owned businesses.”

Ms Arif said while lack of capital is an issue for all SMEs, women-owned businesses have more operational capacity and information gap.

“They do not know how to look for and access these procurement contracts sometimes,” she said.

She said companies are really now committed now that they have seen the government pledge to do 30 per cent of their procurement with the gender lens. The challenge is: how do they go about it? How do they find these businesses?

“Businesses are different from Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs),” she said. “They (businesses) have to see a business case for doing something and there is a very strong business case that we hope to demonstrate by working with these companies.”

Some of the benefits she listed are: diversifying your supplier base which will reduce your cost and bring in more competition. A business will also diversify the risk profile of its supply chain and that, she said, is good business.

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